Women on Top: Sabine El Kahi

Posted on June 6, 2019

Perseverance along with your belief in the value of your solution will be your key to reach your goals. ”

Sabine El Kahi is an electromechanical engineer with a master’s in mechanical engineering and computer vision. She is the founder of Kids Genius which evolved to become a larger project “The Makers Hub”.  

She has worked with several startups as a mechanical designer and product developer. Through her career, she noticed the lack of know-how in application among young generations and the lack of awareness in seeing technology as a tool for developing new solutions. She then established Kids Genius, which evolved to become “The Makers Hub”.

The Makers Hub is a makerspace for youth from 7 years old up to 18 to develop their practical skills and technical knowledge using open source technologies such as manufacturing, electronics, 3D printing and scanning and raise in them a maker spirit instead of being consumers of goods. At the same time, students get the chance to use their theoretical knowledge for building their products. 

She was selected as a Techwomen Emerging Leader for the year 2014. In 2018, Kids Genius was among the 10 best social enterprises at the MIT Enterprise Forum, Pan Arab Competition.

The Interview

How did you get your business idea?

Since my childhood, I have always wondered how things were made, how products that we use every day function and how dimensions and shapes are decided. I wanted a space where I can tinker and try building my own stuff, ideas, toys… disassemble defective parts without being blamed for disturbing the place. Since a very young age, I had the belief that “I am not free if I cannot create or produce what I need or want”. How is my education helping me in answering those questions? I hated how attached we are to materials. For me, an item is made by a human so I should be able to make another one or even a better one and contribute to the evolution of our societies.

This curiosity of understanding how things work, was my motive to study electromechanical engineering. But then, when I graduated, the construction sector in Lebanon was booming and almost all graduating engineers got hired in this sector. This was not what I wanted. I felt that if I went into this field, I would not get the opportunity to explore my creativity, keep learning and coping with all the new technologies and new products.

As I got my scholarship as a graduate assistant, I decided to complete my master’s because I was not really satisfied with the opportunities provided in the field. During my studies, I had the chance to explore the tinkerer side of me and in 2011 I got my first 3D printer which was the start for me to begin developing my own workshop space.

In 2014, I decided to start Kids Genius a makerspace for kids starting 7 years old and a place that I always missed when I was a kid. In 2018, The Makers Hub was launched to cover programs for students from 12 to 18 years old.

What was the main drive that pushed you to start your business?

I believe that there are many reasons that drive a person to start their own business. The main drive was my passion to have a meaningful and purposeful life during which I was happy to go to work and contribute in the improvement of our communities. I am not pretending that I’ve known what I wanted to do since my childhood, but when I started my business, everything I used to think about as a child resurfaced. 

I remember one day in 2014 saying to my mother, “do you remember when I was a kid I wanted to be a teacher and you didn’t like that but now I teach what I love and for me this is the best combination.” 

Seeing the impact on youth is my daily motivation to keep moving forward. I love seeing youth understanding physics and mathematical concept through the projects that they produce with us. It allows them to see facts from a different perspective and better acquire the knowledge. This will contribute in developing a community of future innovators.

In addition to my main drive, the support of my family especially my mother who has always encouraged us to pursue what we believe in and the support and encouragement of some people around me pushed me to start. 

What was your biggest fear before starting up? How did you overcome it?

I was afraid that the timing was not right since the country was not stable and I knew that the awareness in the community was not there yet. Will the community understand the value of the work we are providing? Is it the right time? What if it didn’t work? When I had all these questions, I remembered how my father started his own business when the situation in Lebanon was even worse (during the war). It was not easy for the whole family but with hard work and focus, he was able to make it a successful business. So, I thought that if he had kept waiting for the right time, it would have never come, and he would have never started. What is the value of our life if we don’t give a try for something we love and believe in? I didn’t want to one day regret not doing what I wished to have access to as a child. This is when I started Kids Genius and benefitted from the support of the family and friends.

How do you describe your core business activity and what’s the key value you offer to your customer?

The Makers Hub is a makerspace especially designed for youth aged from 7 to 18 years old and is equipped with tools and machines that cover different fields of technology related to hardware development, such as manufacturing, electronics, 3D design, 3D printing/scanning… Through hands-on projects, youth conceive technology as a tool to develop their ideas and innovate. 

We target schools mainly, providing them with a complete solution to incorporate STEAM education within their programs. With our makerspace model incorporated in the school and our designed educational program, students will get the chance to develop motor skills, practical knowledge and apply what they study in math and science to develop projects and applications to their studies. Schools, that are not ready to implement our model, can book our makerspace for their class visits where students will attend hands-on sessions aligned with what they are studying in school and that finished with a project that they make and take back home.

NGOs also benefit from our programs to train unemployed youth and youth with learning difficulties who prove significant improvement especially in motor skills development, focus and confidence.

In the afternoons, subscribed members can learn and develop skills in fabrication, electronics and digital fabrication and apply what they have learnt to produce, create and enhance the products, with the help and supervision of trained instructors. Also, youth can access our makerspace as their workshop to develop their science fair projects and benefit from the support of our team technically and as mentors.

What are the key strategies you use to expand your business?

We have so far established 4 makerspaces other than our main center: two of them in collaboration with NGOs in underprivileged communities, a third one in Beirut Digital District and a fourth in Tyre, in Rihad El Zahraa school with Sadr Foundation.

For us to expand, we are licensing our educational programs and concept to schools, collaborating with NGOs and municipalities, and creating afterschool clubs and enrolling youth in afterschool activities.

What do you look for when recruiting an employee?

I look for makers and educators. By makers, I mean candidates who always work on developing their skills, building projects that they are passionate about, even if their university or work did not require those projects. Being a self-learner and a lifelong learner is very essential for our social enterprise.

When saying educators, I don’t mean that they are necessarily teachers but that they love sharing knowledge and transmitting it to others and are patient working with kids and youth and exploring different ways to explain a scientific fact. 

In general, people who show curiosity and passion for lifelong learning, education, technology, science and tinkering are a precious asset for The Makers Hub.

How many employees do you currently have? How do you describe your management style?

We have now 3 full-time employees and 7 part-timers. My management style is a ‘trust but verify’ style where I set requirements for our next steps and trust what the team will be developing then interfering to give feedback and directions if needed. I also motivate them and push them to learn new skills by introducing them to new tools and opportunities for learning.

How do you describe yourself in 3 words?

Passionate, persistent and practical

What’s your favorite part of your business, and why?

I love and enjoy seeing the excitement on young people’s faces while working at The Makers Hub. We introduce science and math concepts to them through projects that they have to build from scratch. Their eyes glow when they see the connection between what they study and how things are built and produced.

By collaborating also with two schools that work with students with learning difficulties and disabilities, one of our best rewarding moments is watching the students proud of their creations and their ability to work by themselves. It brings tears to our eyes as The Makers Hub team. We didn’t see this coming. It helped the students develop motor skills and raise their confidence but also prove to people that they are able to be productive.

How do you advertise your business? How do you advertise your product/service?

We apply to competitions and mentoring programs that provide us with the support, advice and exposure whenever possible. We also participate in exhibitions and conferences. While our products and services are shared with our clients through social media like Facebook and Instagram, emails and direct meetings are set up with schools and NGOs.

What made you choose this type of business?

I just followed my passion. Since a very young age, I had questions about the meaning of life and the purpose of our existence, and I was always searching for what would make me feel happy to exist and affect positively my surrounding. We have a lot of potential in our youth. The problem is that they rarely get the chance to know that or explore it. Currently with our concept, we have reached out to more than 2000 students, among them are students with learning difficulties, unemployed youth and underprivileged communities. We have established makerspaces in schools and NGOs to maximize the reach out to the youth in our community and prepare them with the skills they need, the practical and technical knowledge and the confidence in their ability to innovate and create new solutions and products.

If you had one piece of advice to someone just starting out, what would it be?

The journey is not easy, but perseverance along with your belief in the value of the solution that you are providing for the market will be your key to reach your goals. Be a lifelong learner to benefit from the new tools and technologies and keep in mind that networking is an opportunity for you to meet potential new clients, partners and mentors.

How do you balance the different aspects of your life? (well-being, family, social and professional)

Our family traditions made it a bit easier for me to maintain a life balance. When we were kids, we were always told that weekends and especially Sundays are for family gatherings. We still, as a family, abide by this golden rule. I also have more time to spend with friends during the week days after work. I think I just have to do better on the well-being aspect of my life as I am not doing enough effort to allocate time for sport and relaxing.